Leprosy has terrified humanity since ancient times. Now called Hansen’s disease, leprosy is very rare in the United States and Europe, but is still a major health problem in some areas of the world, such as tropical Africa. Last summer, my son led a mission to Cameron, Africa. We travelled to remote villages near the Congo and visited a medical clinic that treats lepers. Those infected with leprosy remain secluded there and we could only see them from a far distance. The experience was quite eery, even shocking, as there is a stigma that evokes fear and anxiety. We came to appreciate and admire the health professionals and the religious who dedicate their lives to caring for the lepers.
Leprosy, a terrible infection that causes skin tissues to degenerate and deform the body, was far more common in Bible times. Unchecked, leprosy can turn a human into something that looks like a monster from a horror movie.
God gave the Israelites very specific instructions on how to deal with leprosy. Anyone suspected of having this disease had to go to a priest for examination. If found to be infected, “the leprous person who has the disease shall keep his garment rent and his head bare, and he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ His dwelling shall be outside the camp”.
For centuries, leprosy was considered a curse of God. Those infected were thought to be unclean, untrustworthy, and morally corrupt. Those with leprosy were so despised and loathed that they were not allowed to live in any community other than with their own people. Both church and state required segregation from the mainstream. A leper wasn’t allowed to come within six feet of any other human, including his own family. The disease so revolting that the leper wasn’t permitted to come within 150 feet of anyone when the wind was blowing. They were required to wear special clothing or carry a bell to warn others of their presence.
Lepers and leprosy are used though out Scripture to reveal the depth of God’s love. Today’s Gospel, for example, is rich in meaning and we can glean valuable lessons from the leper who sought God’s healing. In this passage, leprosy is used as a symbolic, yet powerful analogy to sin and its horrible consequences. Like leprosy, sin starts out small but, left unchecked and untreated, can quickly spread, leading to more sin and causing great damage to our relationship with God and neighbor.
At the same time, though, the Gospel demonstrates the Power of God and His desire to heal, even the most undesirable among us. Jesus had no problem touching people with leprosy. While those with leprosy suffered banishment from family and neighbors - no one would come close to them - Jesus broke from the tradition. He treated lepers with compassion, touching and healing them.
Likewise, no matter how destructive sin has been in our lives, no matter how ugly and deformed sin may have caused us to become, Jesus is right there, patiently waiting for us to ask for his healing. We can be sure that no matter how much we have sinned, no matter how far we have fallen, no matter how ugly or shameful we think we are, Jesus will never turn us away.
There is more we can learn from this leper. Notice how he did not just walk up to Jesus and demand to be healed. Instead, the leper came to Jesus, dropped to his knees, and begged for mercy. “If you wish, you can make me clean.” IF YOU WISH. In other words, “if it be your will, Jesus, rid me of this awful condition.” Far from the instant gratification that pervades our culture today, the leper teaches us how we should be asking for God’s help. We must first humble ourselves, drop to our knees in worship, and then, whatever we ask for, preface our petitions with “If it is your will, Lord.”
If it is your will, Lord, please help me get the job I applied for. If it is your will, Lord, please remove this cancer from my body Lord. Because what we want may not always be God’s will for us. What we want may not be the best thing for us.
Leprosy can help us understand why God the Father would allow us to experience pain and suffering. Patients with advanced leprosy experience a total loss of physical pain because the disease kills the nerve endings that carry pain signals. Unable to sense pain, lepers are far more prone to injury. Some lepers have had their fingers eaten by rats while they are sleeping because they were totally unaware of it happening.
Pain, as much as it hurts, is actually a critical survival mechanism to warn us of danger. Without pain and suffering, we might be like lepers, unable to recognize the destructive nature of sin in our lives. Sin causes us to become more and more separated and even ostracized from God and neighbor. Pain and suffering has a way of getting our attention. Pain and suffering alert us that something is seriously wrong. Pain and suffering remind us to turn to our Creator for help and healing.
After Jesus heals the leper, he gives him a stern warning not to tell others about this great miracle. Yeah right! The leper, like all the others who are touched by his healing hand, could not contain his joy. Far from keeping a secret, the leper was so effective in spreading the word that it became impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly without getting mobbed. The leper became a very effective evangelizer!
See how much we can learn from this leper. With courage and determination...and maybe even a little desperation...we come to Jesus in all our sinfulness, drop to our knees in worship and petition Him. If it is your will, Lord, heal me. And when he does, our joy can not be contained, and we tell everyone about the great gift of healing we received. In other words, we start to evangelize.
An evangelist is one who, despite his or her sinfulness, weakness and fears, has come to Jesus Christ, worshiped him, found healing, and then goes forth and tell others, so that they too can find the same healing, the same peace.
So come to the Altar, the foot of the cross, where we are join with St. Bernadette, the patron saint of illness, and Our Lady of Lourdes, on this her feast day, to receive the healing grace of Jesus Christ through the Holy Eucharist. Then, we can go forth as evangelizers, like the leper who was healed, and proclaim the Good News to all the world.